Po Boy Views
How I Won The War
Okle-dokle, I know that there are March events to write about; French Quarter Fest, Tennessee Williams Literary Fest, Saints Patrick and Joseph, Mardi Gras, Time changes, a big Krishna event, Passover, the first day of spring and a planet-wide day to light up a big fatty. Also, March 3rd is my brother’s birthday, but I’m not writing about that either (although I could dig some dirt in that acreage, it won’t be in this issue).
I’ve got another event that I want to talk about: March 2nd over half a century ago I entered into the United States military. The U.S. Navy, needless for me to say, forever changed my outlook on many things including life, love, a supreme being, travel and the wisdom that comes with being cooped up on a floating, self-sustaining, outdated, lumbering and cramped boxhauler with two thousand testosterone pumping teenagers roaming the seas; ready to do battle.
I come from the projects of New York City. At the time of my youth the city had not changed much since the great depression; it was a city for only two classes of people: the very rich and the very poor. I sold newspapers in bars, hitched unsanctioned rides on the backs of trucks and got into as much trouble as my family would allow, which was never enough for me. I hustled my way out of high school a month after my seventeenth birthday with the plan to get out of my circumstances and join the ranks of older kids who had found their way out by joining the military. I was convinced that these guys were accomplishing my two greatest life goals: drinking and whoring. I chose the Navy because of my fear of being wounded or, even scarier, killed on a battlefield far from any bar or bordello; the reflection that an enemy using live ammunition, aiming anywhere in my direction, was a disquieting thought.
It is amazing to me now, a half a century later, that any country can enlist children and have them fight and die for ambiguous reasons of territory and the greed that old men have; the same old men who are comfortable in knowing that they will not be the ones out there with weapons, spoiling for a fight and anxious. But, that’s another thought for another time.
Well, children we were: dumb crackers, poor blacks, city punks and a smattering of ethnics: Hispanic, American Indian, Asians, Indonesians and Jews. It was the time that coming of age in this country made you eligible for a thing called ‘The Draft’; you were going to spend time in the military sooner… or later, so I chose to join.
Whether or not you know it, the military, when not engaged in actual warfare, rehearses for it with the same zeal. So, I spent four years being in and practicing for my ass to get blown to Kingdome Come, traveling the world and ready for action that rarely came. We came close one time in what is now known as, “The Cuban Missile Crisis”. Of course, at the time no one told us that we were saving the world; all we knew was that we were spending months cruising around a piddlyass third world communist island when we could have been elsewhere letting off some steam.
Being in the Navy meant that I got to travel; in fact, I got to spend four consecutive winters in the Caribbean. I also saw England, France and Germany in my wild teenage days. Furthermore, for all the times that you practice or are in military skirmishes, there are periods that are called R&R (rest and relaxation). These times should be called I&I (intoxication and intercourse) for that’s what those times are really about.
Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Panama, Haiti and Cuba all have left indelible marks and scars on my psyche. At the time of my tour of duty, the military was touted as the place to send your child if you wanted him to become a “MAN”. What we were were armed children, harassed and told what to do by ‘lifers’ every minute of every day until our next port stop and what we called our ‘Liberty’; ask anyone who has been there.
A ‘Lifer’ is someone who has found a home in the service and someone who will retire with benefits before they are forty years old. What they get in the meantime is food, clothing and shelter and the joys of bossing around anyone younger than they are. As a city punk, I was in more than my share of trouble and swore that for all of the good times that I had getting drunk and laid, I would “pick shit with the chickens” before I would ever repeat the experience. What am I now? An old guy who gets free medical care from the VA and loves to travel.
In the service when a young man cannot be fully controlled they have a place for them: the kitchen with the other fuck-ups and that’s where I spent the majority of my time, in fact now, it’s where I’ve spent the majority of my life. Even out in the “real world”, Kitchens are where you find the largest concentration of dysfunctional misfits. Ask any cook.
After four consecutive winters of sunshine I was unsuited for northern life and that’s how I came to be transplanted in New Orleans in the late 1960’s. I love the hot summers here, I tell people that, for me, it’s just like being back in a kitchen. After living in the men’s world of the military, when I came to New Orleans I got to (and still do) experience a childhood as in nowhere else I’ve ever lived or visited. I’ve also gotten to do a lot of cooking here, both personally and professionally, a unparalleled adventure.
So you see, at this time of year I think back to all the roads that I took to finally get home, and I’ve found that New Orleans is my real home; if I hadn’t left that other home at seventeen to sail the seven seas, I’d probably be a geezer street punk in New York City, without a profession, wandering about and wondering who the hell all these yuppie white kids are.
Most important: to all those children who wear or have worn the uniform of this country, thank you for serving and keep your head down and your powder dry. May you also live long and prosper.